Printing processes

There is a wide variety of technologies that are used to print magazines, books, newspapers, stationery, posters, packaging, and other print products. The main industrial printing processes are:

Additional printing techniques were developed for very specific applications. These include flock printing, letterpress, intaglio, pad printing, and thermography.

Why a certain job is better printed using one of these processes mentioned can be read on this page about choosing a printing process.


In offset lithography, a printing plate, which is most often made from aluminum, contains an image of the content that needs to be printed. When the plate is inked, only this image part holds ink. That inked image is subsequently transferred (or offset) from the plate to a rubber blanket and then to the printing surface. The process can be used to print on paper, cardboard, plastic, or other materials, but these have to have a flat surface.

Below is a picture of a 4 color sheetfed printing press. At the far end is the intake where individual sheets of paper are automatically fed into the press. The 4 towers or printing units each print one color, typically black get printed first, followed by cyan, magenta, and yellow. The stack of printed sheets is visible on the front of the machine, underneath the press console & monitor which the press operator uses to control the press.

4 color Ryobi press

For higher volume work offset presses use rolls of paper. The picture below shows such a much larger web press. It is so fast that the printed paper needs to be force dried. The black unit at the end of the press is an oven.

Manroland web press with drying oven

Offset is nowadays the most widely used printing technique for an extensive range of products such as books, newspapers, stationery, corrugated board, posters, etc.

Using offset to print promotion, packaging, publications and on products

There is a trend that printing promotional material is gradually migrating to digital printing while some packaging printing is moving to flexo.

You can find more information on the page dedicated to offset printing.


In flexography, the content that needs to be printed is on a relief of a printing plate, which is made from rubber. This plate is inked and that inked image is subsequently transferred to the printing surface.  The process can be used to print on paper as well as plastics, metals, cellophane, and other materials. Flexo is mainly used for packaging and labels and to a lesser extent also for newspapers.

Using flexo to print promotion, packaging, publications and on products

Some packaging printing is moving from flexo to digital.

Digital printing

Digital printing can be done in various ways. Two technologies dominate the industry:

  • Inkjet – In an inkjet printer, the image that needs to be printed is created by small droplets of ink that are propelled from the nozzles of one or more print heads. Inkjet devices can print on a wide range of substrates such as paper, plastic, canvas, or even doors and floor tiles. Inkjet printing is used a lot for posters and signage. It is also economical for short-run publications such as photo books or small runs of books. In-line inkjet printers are sometimes combined with other types of presses to print variable data, such as the mailing addresses on direct mail pieces.  The press shown below is the HP PageWide C500, meant for printing on corrugated board.

    HP PageWide C500 Press
  • Xerography – In xerographic printers, such as laser printers, the image that needs to be printed is formed by selectively applying a charge to a metal cylinder called a drum. The electrical charge is used to attract toner particles. These particles are transferred to the media that is being printed on. To make sure the toner is fixed properly, the substrate passes through a fuser that melts the toner into the medium. Laser printers are not only used in offices but also for small run printing of books, brochures, and other types of documents. These printers are also used for transactional printing (bills, bank documents, etc) and direct mail.

In 2009 both techniques jointly accounted for around 15% of the total volume of print.

Using digital printing for promotion, packaging, publications and products

Digital printing is increasingly utilized for print jobs that were previously printing using offset, flexo or screen printing.

  • In short-run small format (A3 size) printing, digital is taking over from offset for both color and B&W printing. Quick printers and copy shops print digitally on presses from vendors like Xerox, HP, Canon, and Konica Minolta.
  • Labels are also increasingly being printed digitally.
  • Billboard and point-of-sale or point-of-purchase jobs are being done by wide-format inkjet devices.
  • There is a wide range of small format printers used to print on phone cases, mugs, and other products.
  • In book printing publishing companies start to rely more on print-on-demand. The Espresso Book Machine pictured below is well suited for that job.
Espresso Book Machine

There are a number of other digital printing processes that are geared towards specific niche markets:

  • Dye-sublimation is a printing process in which heat is used to transfer a dye onto the substrate. Dye-sub printers are mainly used for printing on textiles, for proofing and for producing photographic prints. Some printers can print on a variety of materials such as paper, plastic, and fabric.
  • In the direct thermal printing process heat is used to change the color of a special coating that has been applied to paper. This process is used in cash registers but also to add markings, such as serial numbers, to products. For this, a transparent ink is used that changes color when a laser applies heat to it.
  • In the thermal ink transfer printing process heat is used to melt print off a ribbon and onto the substrate. It is used in some proofing devices but seems to be gradually disappearing off the market.


Also known as rotogravure, this is a technique in which an image is engraved into a printing cylinder. That cylinder is inked and this ink subsequently transfers to the paper. Gravure printing is used for high volume work such as newspapers,  magazines, and packaging.

Using rotogravure to print promotion, packaging, publications and on products

Gravure is gradually losing market share to offset for publication printing and to flexo for packaging applications.

Screen printing

As its name implies, this printing technique relies on a screen, which is a woven piece of fabric. Certain areas of this mesh are coated with a non-permeable material. In the remaining open spaces, ink can be pushed through the mesh onto a substrate. The advantage of screen printing is that the surface of the recipient does not have to be flat and that the ink can adhere to a wide range of materials, such as paper, textiles, glass, ceramics, wood, and metal.

The image below shows a screen printing press that is used to print t-shirts.

Press that is used to print t-shirts

Increasingly screen printing is being replaced by digital printing.

  • block printing IndiaBlock printing – This technique resembles potato printing, which is a popular pass time for kids. A hand-carved wooden block is inked and pressed on the substrate. Additional blocks can be used to add more colors. Block printing is a slow and laborious process that is still used for printing on fabric in oriental countries.
  • Flocking – used to add a (colored) velvet-like texture to paper, textiles, etc.
  • Heat transfer printing – A special paper is printed using inkjet (or another technique) and then this print is transferred to another surface using heat and pressure. The most well-known use case is iron-on decorations for t-shirts but the process is also used for industrial applications.
  • Intaglio – nowadays mainly used for stamps and paper currency.
  • Letterpress – This relief printing technique dominated the industry until the early 20th century. Nowadays it is mainly an artisanal process used for upscale business cards and wedding invitations, fine editions of books, limited-run art projects,…
  • Pad printing – This is also called tampography. An image is transferred from an engraved printing plate onto a three-dimensional surface using a silicone pad. Pad printing is limited to small surfaces and used to print watch dials, gadgets, toys, car parts, etc.
  • Roller or cylinder printing – Sometimes called machine printing, this is a gravure printing process used for printing on textiles.
  • Rotary screen printing – This is a very fast printing technique in which ink pours out of the holes of a perforated cylindrical tube directly onto the substrate. This technique only lends itself for printing repetitive patterns and is used for printing wallpaper and textiles.
  • Thermography – This is more of a finishing process than an actual printing process. It produces raised lettering on the printed side of the paper and is used for wedding invitations, letterheads, business cards,…

76 thoughts on “Printing processes

  1. Designers must be familiar with the details of printing methods. I’m always searching for a deep understanding of the reasons why projects are moving away from offset printing. Is it a matter of cost?

  2. I need to print (one color) on a 16” long piece of 3-1/2” diameter hdpe pipe. I will have a minimum of 500 pcs per week. This part will be used outdoors. I’ve tried screen printing but the ink doesn’t hold up. Is there a better process out there? Any comments would be helpful.

  3. I recently located images of photos that are on blocks of wood with a metal layer containing the engraved images. I’d like to have these images transferred, but have no idea who I might contact. Can anyone assist?

    1. These are called “printer’s blocks.”
      Using a tabletop hand press, you could ink these up and print the image onto paper.
      eBay has these types of presses for sale.
      I suggest looking up “letterpress” equipment and books on eBay.

  4. It’s nice to learn that the commercial printing process used for magazines is called gravure. I’m considering to produce my own independently made comic book in the future but I’d like its pages to be glossy like a magazine. Maybe I should save up a lot for that because I can imagine that it would cost more than more traditional printing methods.

  5. There is increasing adoption of inkjet technology to offer customized packaging options. Splashjet works closely with machine integrators to develop inks. Splashjet has wide array of pigment colorants which offer enhanced print density on uncoated media. Various performance additives are used to ensure that inks perform to the expectations of demanding industrial applications.

    1. I’ve been in flexo for 30 years. It is and will always be relevant. It’s used for printing labels, bumper stickers, etc etc. Usually, flexo presses run roll to roll. The rolls can be paper stock, mylar, plastics, films, etc etc. Water based, uv based , and alcohol based inks are used.

    1. There is no single answer to that question. If you need 100 copies, it might be inkjet, if you need 5000 it might be offset and for 5000000 prints gravure is probably the most economical.

  6. Does anyone know what might be the best fit out of all of these options for printing on a reusable bag to put a fairly high quality graphic design. Image will have a car some writing but will have fading and detail to it.

    Digital sounds good but it cost more after 500-1000 peaces or more. Any help would be appreciated

  7. I left a reply before but didn’t got any response. My question is how can we modify or replace flexographic printing press as we are not getting good results with our flexographic printing press. What would be best printing technology for the gasket logos at different location and any type of image we need to print for both short and large operation? Our materials are graphite, fiber and some hard armor gaskets. Please suggest a valid option?

    1. I’m not a flexo specialist so cannot answer your question. Try the printplanet forums, you might get some good advice there.

  8. I recommending offset lithography printing. It is a high quality printing. With offset printing, you can expect a high-quality printed image every time. The printer operator can control the ink flow, which means there are fewer wasted prints that don’t provide enough contrast within the images. As a result, you get clean, sharp images on every piece.

  9. Dear Laurens

    I’ve found this article very helpful & useful. It’s awesome!

    May i copy & make it as my lecture notes??

    Because i need some notes about print technologies for my students.

    Thank you in advance, sir.

  10. Pls recommend a suitable Digital Printing machine maker for printing on paper Tissue boxes. We like to consider model with high output capacity. Thank you

  11. Hello,

    I’ve found this article very helpful, thank you very much. I would like to clarify few questions:

    1) There are 4 main categories: packaging, publishing, promotion and product. I don’t understand the last one (‘product’), what kind of prodcuts are included in that category?

    2) Is it possible to provide sources of information or at least describe basic methodology and main assumptions?

    Thank you in advance

  12. Hi This is swetha

    Your article good and got valuable information but still I need to know may I use Offset lithography in machines like corton press machine and automatic foil stamping machine

    1. I don’t agree. Digital images can also be printed using any of the other printing technologies.

    2. Sir. Is printing on tinpaltes or metal sheets for paint packaging (tin cans) under flexor printing or offset printing ?

  13. Dear Laurens,

    thanks for your interesting report about the printing process. Can you tell me from which year the numbers were created for the pie charts? Do you have an a total number for the different total demands for the printing processes.

    Thanks in advance!

  14. I intend to buy a printing for paper bags (chemical industries) . Manufacturer in Japan call the machine is “Ink-sealing type printing machine” . I can’t find a good translation and don’t know what type of it. How many kinds of printing machine for carton/paper package?

  15. I read something many others printing processes such as heat transfer surface wetting printing as well as recommendation printing please explain it.

  16. Hi Laurens

    I would like more indepth information on flexo printing and the techniques of mixture of adhesives and paint used for printing packaging for food items, for ex, chips etc.


  17. Hi Laurens
    Do you have any additional information on heat transfer printing. I’m trying to figure out how to print iron-on transfers for hand embroidery designs – basically a line drawing that you can transfer to fabric using a home iron – and so far I’ve worked out that it has to do with the ink/printing system as they’re typically printed on generic copy paper or a vellum-type tracing paper.
    Sublimation printing is no good as it only works on synthetic fabrics, not natural fabrics such as cotton or linen, and requires specialist paper for the transfer.
    Any advice would be much appreciated. Thanks, Kelly

  18. Concerning: self mailer placed in magazine as blow in, that fall out where you subscriber to magazine note: not postcards but self mailer.

    Using cheap paper and cheap printing including color and a perforated line.

    What printing process can satisfy this requirements?
    Also what type of paper could be used? Cheapest is preferred.

  19. I am looking to print a logo onto a stick on card holder made of a synthetic material. It is essentially fake leather or plastic. Does anyone know the technique of printing I am looking for? Thanks.

  20. Hi Laurens,
    I am currently studying in University of Applied Sciences. I have a presentation to make on Offset printing.
    I would like to know if I could include your pictures and graphs in my PowerPoint.

    Thank you

    1. Partially reusing content from this site for educational purposes in presentations or papers is fine with me. A reference to the source is appreciated.
      Copying entire pages is, however, not allowed. Many major web publishing platforms enforce the DMCA-act so stealing content and pretending it is yours can lead to getting one’s account canceled.

  21. I am a mango farmer. I want to make small carton boxes to supply mangoes directly to my retail clients. To minimise storage space and change in printing designs, I need to prepare labels etc. in small quantity myself. Can you suggest me a way to get it done with low capital exp.

    1. Cardboard boxes are delivered folded, so storing hundreds or thousands of boxes that a local printer preprinted for you does not take up much space. You could print labels yourself but it is probably also more economically to have them printed elsewhere. Printers who specialize in labels can produce them at a lower price than you ever could. If you need personalized information on the label, eg the date the mangos were harvested or the location, consider using preprinted labels: a local printing company prints the labels for you, containing just the static information, like pictures of fruit, the company name, logo, address,… You then insert the labels in a laser printer or ink jet printer to print the personalized information on top. That way you combine high quality affordable labels with content you added yourself at the last minute.

  22. Hi, thankyou for the info. Do you suggest I start my printing business with cheap machine. And what are the best prices you know for a small digital machine? Im researching within my area but would like to know prices abroad.

    1. That is a very broad and rather odd question. I’d say you start your business with the best printer you can afford that meets the requirements of your customers. That latter part – the customer – is completely missing in your question.

  23. Hello Sir,
    I must say , your blog is an inspiration to all of us who want to start up , in the printing & packaging industry.
    Sir, i want to know ,i want to set up my own unit n the bottle labels & wrappers segment.
    Is there any industrial printer, which can help me print PVC labels (Plastic & paper labels) printing.
    Or suggest me anything else updated process in this field.
    Thank you

    1. I’m not active in that market and cannot recommend any printing companies. It would be impossible anyway without knowing your location. Check the local trade organisation or visit a local trade show. Here in Belgium the local show is appropriately called LabelExpo.

  24. Hi,
    I want to start my business through business card printing give me some ideas .just like
    what is the cheap process ?how much investment requires?

    1. There are so many different types of digital printers capable of printing business cards that it is is impossible for anyone to give a proper answer without knowing on which types of stocks you want to print and what your expected daily volume and quality expectations are. Instead of investing in your own equipment; you could also look into buying spare capacity at the existing local printers. A lot of well-known web-to-print companies started like that.

  25. Hi..all types of printing are nicely explained and it was very helpful as could easily understand the differences between each type along with the field in which it is used like packaging, promotion, publication etc.
    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  26. What digital card printers are best for printing PVC business cards only, from scanned original paper cards?
    Do not need encoding,encripting or any security stuff! Just plain business/visiting cards!
    Thanks, Graeme

  27. Hello,

    If I screen print white UV ink onto Transparent BOPP material, will I later be able to print on top using offset machine and offset inks?

  28. hi, For the Printing on PVC ,Which printing is doing and in which what solution(solvents) can be used as ink reducer.

  29. Hi,
    Thanks for the information. I wanted to know various types of printing for my profession. I found this article very helpful. I am still searching for the more clarity on Printers used for Bar Code printing. Can you anyone tell me, whether all these types are capable of printing Bar codes?

    1. I am not an expert but I think that with the possible exception of screen printing all printing techniques can handle barcodes.

  30. hi i feel like this is a very helpful article in which my wisdom has been heightened because of this wonderful article. thank you so much for the elaboration and the detail into which this response has been created. as an artist myself i find it very important to use a variety of different printing methods and thanks to your super article i can now explore the various elements of printing. youve really helped me. Thanks!

  31. Hi,

    It’s very difficult to find useful graphics representing the many printing tecnologies together with the flexible packaging market sectors. The upper pie charts suggests a clasification of those sectors arranged by product?, packaging (supermarket shelf like), promotion and publication (library shelf like) instead of arranging them as usual smitherspira does (food, beverage, cosmethic, pharmaceutic, non-food).

    Is it possible to provide the source of these charts?

    Thank you very much

    1. Various paper types:
      Gloss and silk coated-$- easily available – most used so mills make tons and tons- least expensive
      Uncoated and offset-$$- easily available
      Opaque-$$$- easily available
      Felt, Laid, Linen and others $$$$

      Coated vs Uncoated

      Coated paper has a coating, usually of china clay, which gives it a smooth finish. Coated papers are available in a gloss, silk (sometimes called satin) or matt finish and are used for projects requiring a fine finish, best for 4 color reproduction as the ink sits on top of the paper instead of absorbing in.
      Weights- 60# to 100# text/ 60# to 120# cover
      Uses-Flyers, postcards , catalogs

      Well, if you’re creating a full color document featuring photographs or colorful illustrations, you’ll get the most vibrant colors if you opt for a coated paper. Whether you choose a gloss, silk or matt finish is mostly down to your personal preference, although gloss paper will produce the most vibrant color reproduction. Uncoated paper can be used for full color projects but colors tend to be less vibrant and unless you use a low quality bond paper, it could end up costing considerably more than if you’d selected a coated stock.

      Due to its glossy finish, you should avoid using coated papers if your document is designed to be written on.

      Uncoated paper doesn’t have a coating and is therefore not as smooth as coated paper. You use uncoated paper in your laser printer and photocopier. Premium quality uncoated papers are used for business stationery and are becoming increasingly popular for use in prestigious brochures and catalogues as an alternative to the more commonly used coated papers. Uncoated papers are available in a range of finishes:

      Laid paper is a premium quality paper with a textured pattern of parallel lines, similar to hand made paper. Commonly used for business stationery.
      Felt paper is a premium quality paper with a textured pattern bumps and ridges, similar to hand made paper. Commonly used for business stationery
      Linen paper is a premium quality paper with a textured cross hatch pattern, similar to hand made paper. Commonly used for business stationery

      Wove paper is a premium quality paper with a uniform surface, not ribbed or textured like laid paper. Again, used mostly for business stationery.

      Bond paper is a term commonly used to describe economical uncoated wove papers. You will probably use bond paper in your photocopier and fax machine.

      Paper Thickness

      It is normal practice to specify the ‘thickness’ of paper by its weight
      20# Bond=50# Offset
      24# Bond= 60# Offset
      28# Bond= 70# Offset
      32# Bond= 80# Offset

      Letterheads, envelopes, etc are almost always printed onto uncoated paper – 24# is normal, 28# adds prestige. There are literally hundreds of different brands of paper to choose from and individual printing contractors will tend to stock and promote a handful of their favorite ranges. If you plan to overprint your stationery using a desktop printer, make sure the paper is inkjet and/or laser compatible. It’s also worth noting at this point that some printing and finishing processes are not inkjet/laser compatible. Ensure you double check before placing your order.

      If you’re simply after something cheap and cheerful most people think that a low quality uncoated paper is going to be the most economical option. Not always the case! Printing companies tend to buy coated stock by the truck load and therefore get very good rates. If you’re after the lowest possible price, ask your printer to use his cheapest stock but ask to see a sample first to avoid any nasty surprises.

      Finally, be aware that color reproduction will differ depending upon the type of paper the ink is printed on. If you need accurate color reproduction across a range of different documents, you may wish to use the same type of stock throughout. For instance, if your letterheads and envelopes are printed onto an uncoated paper, you will probably want to choose an uncoated stock for your business cards, again, per your taste

  32. As a designer it is helpful to know the details about the different printing methods. I’m always looking for a deeper understanding. Why are projects moving away from offset? Is it cost related?

    1. Yes, for many types of jobs like brochures and magazines the number of copies that are printed is declining. This can make a switch to digital printing economically more attractive.

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